Authors: Maureen Lipinski
Tags: #young adult, #teen fiction, #fiction, #teen, #teen fiction, #teenager, #drama, #romance, #magic, #fantasy, #urban fantasy
“Caroline!” Brooke said. “Sorry, she's totally rude.”
“What?” Caroline said as Brooke elbowed her. She looked at me, her eyes sparkling. “I mean, you don't look Amish or anything. You ride in cars and stuff, right?”
I smiled. “No, we're not Amish. We have electricity, my dad doesn't have a long beard, and we don't make our own clothes or anything.”
Brooke and Caroline laughed and I relaxed a little. “She's funny, right?” Brooke said to Caroline, who nodded.
I wasn't sure if they thought I was joking about my sisters being homeschooled, but it was true. After my dad moved us to Westerville last month, my mom decided to homeschool my sisters until she could find an acceptable “alternative”âreally meaning New Age and progressiveâschool for them. Which was something of a challenge, considering that the most progressive thing in Westerville we'd seen so far was the herbal tea section at the local grocery store.
But “homeschooled” was all Alex or anyone else needed to know. I guess it could've been worse. I could've said something completely socially moronic like, “Do you guys think *NSYNC is going to get back together soon?”
I walked into the school building, clutching my class schedule. I glanced down at it several times, each time hoping it would provide a clueâsome concrete road map that would illuminate at least the next ten steps of my uncharted path. I rubbed it like a magic lamp, praying some genie would pop out and give me really pretty, shiny hair and some semblance of a clue about how to act and what to say.
It didn't tell me anything except that my first class was English and I had Ms. Faber.
he rest of the day, I nervously glanced behind me each time I sat down in class or opened my locker, positive I'd see a moving shadow or wisp of mist from some CrÃ©atÃºir smoke signal. I couldn't imagine why they'd be trying to contact me, but Melissa would just have to figure it out. She was a former classmate who'd taken over my Shaman duties when I gave up the title last spring.
“Ready?” Brooke asked. We were in the locker room before gym class.
“Almost.” I patted my gym shirt, making sure my amulet was still underneath it, around my neck. I followed Brooke into the gym, feeling a million pairs of eyes turning in our direction as I walked behind her. But I was more concerned about this next class than the people in it.
Which, according to nearly every movie, book, and television show, was the class where people got humiliated in front of their peers via forced physical activities.
Not to mention we didn't
gym class at my old school. We had something called “free period,” where we could do whatever we wanted. My older sister, Morgana, would practice her energy healings; my youngest sister, Gia, would perform Muse exercises; and my middle sister, Rhea, would â¦ well, gossip and sneak off to make out with guys.
“Over here,” Brooke said as we walked toward the west corner of the gym. “This is where the class meets.” I sat down on the gym floor and took a quick glance around. One wall appeared to be a shrine to the football team, and a huge banner across another wall read
with footballs painted all over it.
“Did the cheerleaders paint that banner?” I asked, pointing across the room.
Brooke nodded and proceeded to explain to me, in minute detail, what exact paints and supplies to use when making various cheerleading paraphernalia such as signs and banners. I didn't remember asking about that, but I nodded enthusiastically like she was revealing a love spell for Chase Crawford. (Which wouldn't work anywayâRhea already tried it.)
“ â¦ You can't use the everyday paints. You have to use the one labeled as non-drip. You know?” she said.
I sighed and nodded.
“Sorry, this is probably totally boring to you. I mean, did your last school even have cheerleaders?” Brooke furrowed her forehead as if she was afraid of my answer.
I shook my head, and she inhaled sharply.
“Wow, okay. So, I'll make it simple. We haven't lost a football game in thirty games, and that's including the state championships. The football players, cheerleaders, boosters, all of us. We're kind of a family, you know?” She tucked her long legs underneath her.
I nodded, not sure if I was in the family or not.
Brooke leaned forward and patted me on the arm. “You're friends with Alex, so you're definitely okay. He's kind of a big deal, you know that, right?”
Truthfully, I wasn't sure if Alex could even be called my friend yet, but I smiled at her. Apparently I was one of them.
I was seeing firsthand how in high school there are two groups of people: those who have and those who want. It was kind of like the Light Other Realm beings versus the Dark, except that the dividing line seemed to be athletics, rather than ancestral blood and a preference for the beautiful and light versus the twisted and dark.
And thankfully, like a Light CrÃ©atÃºir, I was a have.
“That's why we're all so pumped for the new stadium next year,” Brooke continued. “And why we were so worried when there were construction problems last month. Luckily, those issues went away and everything is back on track. This stadium will really take our athletic program to the next level and be a symbol of how Westerville High football is the best in the state, maybe even in the whole country. To be able to cheerlead, and lead the crowd, in that kind of an environment will be such an honor.” She said this so earnestly, I honestly expected to hear the National Anthem swelling behind her words.
“All right, ladies. Line up!” said a person clad in a baggy T-shirt and gym shorts. I say “person” because I honestly had no idea if it was a man or woman.
Obediently I stood up, shooting a questioning look at Brooke. But she was too busy imagining cheerleading in the new football stadium.
“Welcome to gym class. I'm Jo. Your teacher.” Jo narrowed his/her eyes and looked at the lot of us. “You!” Jo said and pointed at me. “Who are you?”
Startled, I felt my face begin to grow bright red. I mentally started to berate myself:
Stop blushing! You're making a fool out of yourself already! What? Can't even speak your name now without looking like you just realized that not every family has afternoon meditation hour?
“Leah Spencer,” I managed to squeak out. The voice that came from my mouth did not sound like mine.
“Somethin' wrong with you?” Jo said and crossed his/her arms over his/her chest. I shook my head and attempted to laugh, but once again my voice sounded like someone who'd ingested helium. I was still so startled and confused over this person's gender that I didn't know how to react.
“Honey, you supposed to be in special ed?” Jo asked me sympathetically.
Brooke burst out laughing and shook her head.
“No, no. I'm supposed to be here,” I said as I wished a portal would rip open on the gym floor and whisk me away to an alternate universe. One where people didn't think I was mentally handicapped.
Glaring at me, Jo announced we all needed to warm up and run ten times around the gym. I took a few jogging steps forward when I realized Brooke was standing still. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Duh, I have a note,” she said, her voice slightly exasperated. “I can't risk an injury when we have an important game on Friday night.”
“Spencer, GET MOVING!” Jo barked across the gym. His/her voice bounced off the walls like a rubber four-square ball. I caught up with the pack of students and jogged behind them, still trying to figure out my gym teacher's gender.
“New Girl, you gonna make it?” a voice next to me asked. I turned my head and saw a very cute boy with shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair jogging alongside me.
“I think so,” I said.
He smiled at me. “You and Ms. Mann really hit it off, huh?” he said, breathing heavily.
“WHAT ARE YOU, EIGHTY YEARS OLD? KEEP UP, JOHNSON!” the scary gym teacher said to one of the students lagging behind.
The pack of students turned the corner and we started on our next lap.
“So, our teacher's a woman?” I asked, reaching up and tightening my ponytail.
Cute Guy sputtered and laughed so hard he had to stop running.
“What?” I stopped and stood next to him. He finished laughing and our eyes locked for a moment. He brushed his hair back from his forehead and I noticed that his eyes were a mixture of bright green and blue, like a patch of new grass mixed with ocean water. But unlike Alex, something behind his eyes was hard, like the splintery edges of a wooden board before it's been smoothed by sandpaper.
“SPENCER, WESTON, WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? PUT ON YOUR BIG KID PANTIES AND KEEP RUNNING!” Ms. Mann screamed across the gym.
We obediently started running again. “I seriously didn't know she was a woman,” I muttered to Cute Guy.
“I don't know about anatomically, but she's apparently female,” he said.
I laughed and I huffed up and down. Gym class certainly wasn't for the weak-hearted.
“Man, New Girl, you're slow. Are you gonna have a heart attack or something?” Cute Guy said as my face grew red and my hair plastered itself to the sides of my face.
I looked at him effortlessly jogging next to me. Before I could respond, he sped up and sprinted away, leaving me to struggle on alone.
After we finished our warm-up, those of us who didn't have a note from our parents on account of cheerleading gathered outside to play a game of softball. I kept my eyes off of Cute Guy, not wanting to endure further humiliation after he saw me nearly barf up my lung during warm-ups.
As I stood at the plate, I repeated over and over,
Just hit the ball with the stick. It can't be that hard. Just hit it
. And I made contact. At least, my arm did.
“OW!” I shrieked as the enormously huge softball plunked me right on the wrist.
“SHAKE IT OFF! SHAKE IT OFF! TAKE FIRST BASE,” Ms. Mann screamed from two feet away as the entire class busted out laughing. I whimpered, cradling my arm against my chest, but obligingly trotted to first base.
“Hey,” I said casually to Cute Guy.
“Hi,” he said, looking down at his baseball glove. He studied the stitching before looking up at me, his deep-set eyes squinting a bit in the sun.
“So, I'm Leah. Iâ”
I stopped when I saw a dark figure standing next to a tree in the far outfield. I squinted in the hot morning sun and used my good hand to shield my eyes.
“I, what?” Cute Guy said, staring at me. He brushed his hair back again and let it fall in a sheet on either side of his face.
I saw the shadow move across the tree and creep across the field, invisible footsteps bending blades of grass toward me until I felt hot breath on my neck. At the same time, a perfect white snowflake fell on my arm in the eighty-degree heat.
A message from the Light CrÃ©atÃºir. Single, perfect, glittering snowflakes were their equivalent of a tap on
I looked down at the snowflake before brushing it quickly off my arm. “Just leave me alone,” I muttered. “I don't know what you want, but I can't help you.”
“Wow. You started talking to me, remember? What's wrong with you?” Cute Guy said. He took a step away and looked me up and down quickly.
“INNING OVER. GAME OVER. CLASS OVER,” Ms. Mann shouted as one of the students caught a pop fly. Cute Guy jogged off before I had a chance to explain.
I made it through a few more classes unscathed and without incident and soon it was time for lunch. After the bell rang, I followed the moving crowd down the stairs to the cafeteria. Alex's crowd was sitting at a large table in front of the windows overlooking the courtyard. A table packed with huge, muscular guys in Westerville football T-shirts, peppered with a few tiny, tanned, and perfectly coiffed girls picking at salads and carrot sticks. Brooke caught my attention and gestured for me to join them. I waved back but pointed to the vending machines.
As I stood in front of a vending machine, distractedly jingling the change in my hand and trying to decide if a lunch consisting solely of potato chips would be okay, I heard a voice behind me.
“It's lunch, not rocket science, New Girl.”
I whirled around, expecting to see the bored face of some jock. I wasn't prepared to see a disarmingly mysterious, shaggy-haired boy looking down at me. A white T-shirt and jeans hung loosely on his lanky frame, hinting at taught muscles underneath.
Cute Guy from gym class.
“Oh, sorry,” I stammered. “I'm just trying to decide. And my name is Leah Spencer, remember?” I gave him a half-hearted, nervous smile. “Listen, I wasn't trying to be rude in gymâ”
He cut me off. “Better hurry up. Don't want to keep your crowd waiting.” He crossed his arms over his chest and raised his eyebrows. I remained staring at him. “Lunch is only a half hour,” he added, pointing to the vending machine. “Unless you can't read.” He shrugged.
My cheeks burning at his jerky comment, I turned back to the vending machine. “Uh, yeah, okay. I can read,” I muttered under my breath as I dropped the coins into the slot.
“I'll give you a hint about Westerville, New Girl,” he said behind me, leaning forward to whisper into my ear. I held my breath as I felt him step closer. “Football isn't everything.” I felt his hot breath against my neck. He moved back, wryly smiling at me.
“Thanks for the tip,” I said as I pressed my selection. A bead of sweat started to trickle down my back.
“I bet you've already figured that out. You seem smart enough.” I could practically hear him smirking at my back.
“Er, thanks.” I bent down to pick up my chips.
“I'm Ben, by the way,” he said as I stepped past him.
“Nice to meet you, Ben.” I paused, my eyes fixed on the floor in front of me.
“So Spencer, you enjoying it here yet? I'm sure Alex and Brooke are just
guides,” he said, putting his money in the machine. The way he called me “Spencer” sent an electrical current down my rib cage. “Did they tell you yet how having a football team sticker is âkind of a big deal?'” He picked up a bag of pretzels and leaned against the machine.
I laughed, but quickly frowned. “It
kind of a big â¦ ” I trailed off, unable to finish the sentence with a straight face.